One of the things China invented is the detective story, going back to Yuán operas and Ming stories, centuries before Edgar Allen Poe. The Chinese term is 公案 gōng’àn stories– gōng’àn can be translated “case file” and is also the source of the Zen term kōan– a koan was simply a case or story for monks to think about.

The judge pauses for thought.

The judge pauses for thought.

In 1949 Robert van Gulik published a translation of one of these, an anonymous 18C novel, as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. At least I hope he did. He went on to write a series of Judge Dee mysteries in his own name, and he translated at least one of them into Chinese, so could he have been elaborately pulling our legs? If anyone has proof that the text predates van Gulik, I’d love to know.

Anyway, the heroes of gōng’àn stories are not detectives but magistrates– officials in charge of a district, including tax collection, public order, and the legal system. Judge Dee is based on a real magistrate of the Táng dynasty, Dí Rénjié, who ended up as a high official for the empress Wǔ Zétiān (r. 690-705).

People can bring cases to the judge, or he can investigate suspicious incidents himself. He is all at once detective, prosecutor, and judge, can call any witnesses he likes, can torture them if needed, and there are no lawyers. There are checks on his power, though: his cases are tried in public, and the public could and would protest to his higher-ups. As these could be held responsible for his misdeeds, they had a motivation to keep lower-level magistrates in line.

This is not noir; Judge Dee is smart, scrupulous, and honest. In this book he deals with three cases at once: a traveling silk merchant who is found murdered; a woman who seems to have murdered her husband but denies it under torture; and a young woman who dies just after her wedding to a rich scholar-official. The cases are interleaved, which paints a more convincing portrait of the busy life of a magistrate than three short stories would.

Van Gulik tells us that gōng’àn stories often invoke the supernatural, and that he’s chosen this story to translate as it downplays that element. Judge Dee does get some help from a ghost, but this only confirms a suspicion, leaving him to find the evidence himself.

The judge is not above disguising himself to find out more information, but he also has four lieutenants. (The whole city administration reports to him, but they only do their normal jobs– his lieutenants can be assigned anything.) Rather as Kyril Bonfiglioli posited that you can’t get anywhere as an art dealer without your own thug, Dee’s lieutenants are mostly former bandits. They’re happy to work on the right side of the law, but they’re trained in martial arts and can mix with, or mix it up with, the bad guys.

The setting and different legal system make the stories intriguingly different, and I’d say they also work as mysteries. They’re solved with detective work, they’re pretty satisfying in plot and detail, and they offer a nice cross-section of imperial China. (The only case I didn’t quite buy was the poisoned bride. The solution is a clever but bizarre coincidence that doesn’t quite fit the reasonable naturalism of the rest of the book.)